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Windblown rain rattled against the window and gurgled noisily in a downspout beyond the outside wall against which the bed stood.

Since awakening from his nap. Stefan had looked healthier, and he had perked up even more with the hot soup. But now, as he recalled a youth spent in a cauldron of hatred and death, he paled again, and his eyes seemed to sink deeper into the darkness under his brow. ' 'I never left the SS because it was such a desired position and there was no way to leave without arousing suspicion that I'd lost my faith in our revered leader. But year by year, month by month, then day by day I became sickened by what I saw, by the madness and murder and terror."

Neither the brown-pepper shrimp nor the lemon chicken tasted too good any longer, and Laura's mouth was so dry that the rice stuck to the roof of it. She pushed the food aside, sipped her Coke. “But if you never left the SS . . . when did you go to college, when did you get involved in scientific research?”

“Oh,” he said, “I wasn't at the institute as a researcher. I've no university education. Except ... for two years I received intensive instruction in English, trying to learn to speak with an acceptable American accent. I was part of a project that dropped hundreds of deep-cover agents into Britain and the United States. But I never could quite cast off the accent, so I was never sent overseas; besides, because my father was an early supporter of Hitler, they felt I was trustworthy, so they found other uses for me. I was on special assignment to der Fuhrer's staff, where I was given sensitive jobs, usually as a liaison between squabbling factions of the government. It was an excellent position from which to obtain information useful to the British, which I did from 1938 on.”

“You were a spy?” Chris asked excitedly.

“Of a sort. I had to do what little I could to bring down the Reich, to make up for ever having been a willing part of it. I had to atone-though atoning seemed impossible. And then, in the autumn of 1943, when Penlovski began to have some success with his time gate, sending animals off to God-knew-where and bringing them back, I was assigned to the institute as an observer, as der Fuhrer's personal representative. Also as a guinea pig, as the first human to be sent forward in time. You see, when they were ready to send a man into the future, they did not want to risk Penlovski or Januskaya or Helmut Volkaw or Mitter or Shenck or one of the other scientists whose loss would damage the project. No one knew if a man would come back as reliably as the animals did-or if he would come back sane and whole.”

Chris nodded solemnly. “It's possible time travel might've been painful or mentally unbalancing or something, yeah. Who could know?”

Who could know indeed? Laura thought.

Stefan said, “They also wanted whomever they sent to be reliable and capable of keeping his mission a secret. I was the ideal choice.”

“An SS officer, a spy, and the first chrononaut,” Chris said. “Wow, what a fascinating life.”

“May God give you a life far less eventful,” Stefan Krieger said. Then he looked at Laura more directly than previously. His eyes were a beautiful, pure blue, yet they revealed a tortured soul. “Laura . . . what do you think of your guardian now? Not an angel but an aide to Hitler, an SS thug.”

“No thug,” she said. “Your father, your time, and your society may have tried to make a thug of you, but there was an inner core they couldn't bend. Not a thug, Stefan Krieger. Never. Not you.”

“No angel, though,” he said. “Far from an angel, Laura. Upon my death, when the stains on my soul are read by He who sits in judgment, I'll be given my own small space in hell.”

The rain drumming on the roof seemed like time flowing away, many millions of precious minutes, hours and days and years pouring through gutters and downspouts, draining away, wasted.

After she had gathered up the unfinished food and thrown it into dumpster behind the motel office, after she'd gotten three more Cokes from the machine, one for each of them, she at last asked her guardian the question she had wanted to ask him from the moment he had come out of his coma: 'Why? Why did you focus on me, on my life, and why did you want to help me along, to save my butt now and then? For God's sake, how does my fate tie up with Nazis, time travelers, the fate of the world?"

On his third trip into the future, he explained, he had traveled to California in 1984. California because his previous two trips - two weeks in 1954, two weeks in 1964 - had shown him that California was perhaps the coming cultural and current scientific center of the most advanced nation on earth. Nineteen eighty-four because it was a neat forty years from his own time. He was not the only man going through the gale by then; four others began making jaunts as soon as it was proved safe. On that third trip Stefan had still been scouting the future, learning in detail what had happened to the world during and after the war. He was also learning what scientific developments of the intervening forty years would most likely be taken back to Berlin in '44 to win the war for Hitler, not because he intended to help in that design but because he hoped to sabotage it. His researches involved reading newspapers, watching television, and just circulating in American society, getting a feel for the late twentieth century.

Leaning back on his pillows now, recalling that third journey in a voice utterly different from the gloom with which he had described his grim life up to 1944, he said, “You can't imagine what it was like for me to walk the streets of Los Angeles for the first time. If I had traveled one thousand years into the future instead of forty, it couldn't have seemed more wondrous. The cars! Cars everywhere -and so many of them German, which seemed to indicate a certain forgiveness for the war, acceptance of the new Germany, and I was moved by that.”

“We have a Mercedes,” Chris said. “It's neat, but I like the Jeep better.”

“The cars,” Stefan said, “the styles, the amazing advancements everywhere: digital watches, home computers, videotape recorders for watching movies in your own living room! Even after five days of my visit had passed, I was in a state of pleasant shock, and looked forward each morning to new wonders. On the sixth day, as I passed a bookstore in Westwood, I saw a line of people waiting to have copies of a novel signed by the author. I went inside to browse and to see what kind of book was so popular, to help me a bit in understanding American society. And there you were, Laura, at a table piled with copies of your third novel and your first major success, Ledges.”

Laura leaned forward, as if puzzlement were a force drawing her to the edge of her chair. “Ledges'? But I've never written a book with that title.”

Again, Chris understood. “That was a book you wrote in the life you would've lived if Mr. Krieger hadn't meddled in it.”

“You were twenty-nine years old when I saw you for the first time at that book-signing party in Westwood,” Stefan said. “You were in a wheelchair because your legs were twisted, useless. Your left arm was partly paralyzed, as well.”

“Crippled?” Chris said. “Mom was crippled?”

Laura was literally on the edge of her chair now, for though what her guardian said seemed too fantastic to be believed, she sensed that it was true. On a deep level even more primitive than instinct, she perceived a tightness to the image of herself in a wheelchair, her legs useless and wasted; perhaps what she apprehended was the faint echo of destiny thwarted.

“You'd been that way since birth,” Stefan said.


"I only learned that much later, after conducting much research The doctor who had delivered you in Denver,

Colorado, in 1955-Markwell was his name-had been an alcoholic. Yours was a difficult birth anyway-"

“My mother died delivering me.”

“Yes, in that reality she died too. But in that reality Markwell botched the delivery, and you received a spinal injury that crippled you for life. ”

A shudder passed through her. As if to prove to herself that she had indeed escaped the life that fate had originally planned for her, she got up and walked to the window, using her legs, her undamaged and blessedly useful legs.

To Chris, Stefan said, “That day I saw her in the wheelchair, your mother was so beautiful. Oh. so very beautiful. Her face, of course, was the same as it is now. But it wasn't the face alone that made her beautiful. There was such an aura of courage about her, and she was in such good humor m spite of her handicaps. Each person who came to her with Ledges was sent away not only with a signature but with a laugh. In spite of being condemned to a life in a wheelchair, your mother was so amusing, lighthearted. I watched from a distance and was charmed and profoundly moved, as I'd never been before.”

“She's great,” Chris said. “Nothing scares my mom.”

“Everything scares your mom,” Laura said. “This whole crazy conversation is scaring your mom half to death.”

“You never run from anything or hide.” Chris said, turning to look at her. He blushed; a boy his age was supposed to be cool, at a stage where he was beginning to wonder if he was not infinitely wiser than his mother. In an ordinary relationship, such expressions of admiration for one's mother seldom were expressed so directly short of the child's fortieth birthday or the mother's death, whichever came first. “Maybe you're afraid, but you never act afraid.”

She had learned young that those who showed fear were seen as easy targets.

“I bought a copy of Ledges that day.” Stefan said, “and took it back to the hotel where I was staying. I read it overnight, and it was so beautiful that in places I wept . . . and so amusing that in other places I laughed out loud. The next day I got your other two books, Silverlock and Fields of Night, which were as fine, as moving, as the book that made you famous, Ledges.”

It was strange to listen to favorable reviews of books that in this life she had never written. But she was less concerned about 'earning the storylines of those novels than hearing the answer to a .hilling question that had just occurred to her: “In this life I was meant to live, in this other 1984 . . . was I married?”


“But I'd met Danny and-”

“No. You had never met Danny. You had never married.”

“I'd never been born!” Chris said.

Stefan said, “All of those things happened because I went back to Denver, Colorado, in 1955, and prevented Dr. Markwell from delivering you. The doctor who took Markwell's place couldn't save your mother, but he brought you into the world whole and sound. And everything in your life changed from that point on. It was your past that I was changing, yes, but it was my future, therefore flexible. And thank God for that peculiarity of time travel, for otherwise I wouldn't have been able to save you from a life as a paraplegic.”

The wind gusted, and another barrage of rain rattled against the window at which Laura stood.

She was plagued again by the feeling that the room in which she stood, the earth on which it was built, and the universe in which it turned were as insubstantial as smoke, subject to sudden change.

“I monitored your life thereafter,” Stefan said. “Between mid-January of '44 and mid-March, I made over thirty secret jaunts to see how you were getting along. On the fourth of those trips, when I went to 1964,1 discovered you had been dead for one year, and your father, killed by that junkie who had held up the grocery store. So I journeyed to 1963 and killed him before he could kill you.”

“Junkie?” Chris said, baffled.

“I'll tell you about it later, honey.”

Stefan said, “And until that night that Kokoschka showed up on dm mountain road, I was pretty successful, I think, at making your lie easier and better. Yet my interference did not deprive you of • art or result in books that were any less beautiful than the ones that you'd written in that other life. Different books but not lesser ones, books in the same voice, in fact, that you write in now.”

Feeling weak-kneed, Laura returned to her chair. “But why? Why did you go to such great lengths to improve my life?”

Stefan Krieger looked at Chris, then at her, then closed his eyes when he finally spoke. “After seeing you in that wheelchair, signing copies of Ledges, and after reading your books, I fell in love with you . . . deeply in love with you.”

Chris squirmed in his chair, obviously embarrassed to hear such feelings expressed when the object of affection was his own mother

“Your mind was even more beautiful than your face,” Stefan said softly. His eyes were still closed. “I fell in love with your great courage, perhaps because real courage was something I'd seen none of in my own world of strutting, uniformed fanatics. They committed atrocities in the name of the people and called that courage. They were willing to die for a twisted totalitarian ideal, and they called that courage when it was really stupidity, insanity And I fell in love with your dignity, for I had none of my own, no self-respect like that I saw shining in you. I fell in love with your compassion, which was so rich a part of your books, for in my world I had seen little compassion. I fell in love, Laura, and realized that I could do for you what all men would do for those they loved if they had the power of gods: I did my best to spare you the worst that fate had planned for you.”

He opened his eyes at last.

They were a beautiful blue. And tortured.

She was immeasurably grateful to him. She did not love him in return, for she hardly knew him. But in stating the depth of his love, a passion that had caused him to transform her destiny and that had driven him to sail across vast tides of time to be with her. he had to some degree restored the magical aura in which she had once viewed him. Again he seemed larger than life, a demigod if not a god, elevated from mere mortal status by the degree of his selfless commitment to her.

That night Chris shared the creaky-springed bed with Stefan Krieger. Laura tried to sleep in one chair with her feet propped on the other.

Rain fell in ceaseless, lulling rhythms that soon put Chris to sleep. Laura could hear him snoring softly.

After she sat for perhaps an hour in darkness, she said quietly “Are you asleep?”

“No,” Stefan said at once.

“Danny,” she said. “My Danny ...”

“Why didn't you...”

“Make a second trip to that night in 1988 and kill Kokoschka e could kill Danny?”

“Yes. Why didn't you?”

“Because . . . you see, Kokoschka was from the world of 1944, so his killing of Danny and his own death were a part of my past, which I could not undo. If I'd attempted to travel again to that night in '88, to an earlier point in the evening, to stop Kokoschka before he killed Danny-I would have bounced immediately back through the gate, back to the institute, without going anywhere; nature's law against paradox would have prevented me from going in the first place.”